The nightmare of education in Hong Kong

By Elise Lee

You would think primary education in a world class city such as Hong Kong would be a given. Think again.

As foreign national workers living in Hong Kong, my husband and I chose to live in Discovery Bay, a small and idyllic community built by Hong Kong Resort. With no private cars and lots of dogs and babies, it seemed the perfect place to start a family. This fall, like many other parents of 4 year old children, I submitted my applications to the English School Foundation (ESF) School in our area during the designated period. Just to be safe, we’d already applied a year ago to the international school closest to our home. In our case, this was before our adopted daughter was placed in our home, even before we were legally her parents. One other school in the community is taught entirely in Cantonese, so was not an option for us.

Last month, before our sparkling little girl had a chance to impress her new teachers, we received the shocking, yet all too common news that it is “highly improbable” that neither school would have a place for our child, nor therefore, would she be invited for an interview. It’s difficult to face rejection of your child from anybody, but it is a whole another level when it comes from your local elementary schools.

Each school gives various levels of priorities to children of staff, sibling of current students, children of more privileged backgrounds, but the process is far from transparent, and there is no clear standard for who gets in and who does not. However, with the international school, we do have the option to pay the “premium levy of HKD300,000” to be paid in full and without refund, in which case our child would be guaranteed a position. Anyone living outside of Hong Kong may laugh at the absurdity of this blatant open bribery system, but because this system is kept alive by the minority of parents or the companies of parents who comply, the remaining majority of us who are unwilling or unable to comply are left indignant.

The open bribe or levy system, while prevalent throughout Hong Kong, is also quite complex. In some schools, the school sells the levy, and may even buy it back and resold. In other schools, there is a black market for buyers and sellers of the levy, and the school may broker the deal, which would improve the child’s chances of admission, but offer no guarantee of placement. However, in pristine Discovery Bay, there was none of this shady business, just straight-up non-refundable lump sum payment to the school and guarantee of position thereafter.

With the local English school options too far to consider, we learned that it would be possible to postpone our primary education nightmare one more year and opt into the public (government) local stream, in which case, first grade would start at 6 years of age. This would give us one year to relocate ourselves to a more congested part of Hong Kong which offers more schooling options.

It’s surprising to me that the English language educational system has always been this bad, and many complain but none too loudly to initiate change. On second thought, maybe it’s entirely logical. If you only started to lobby the educational department and school cronies when your child reaches school-age, the debacle would likely persist until after they are too old to benefit from your time and effort. So who in their right minds would bother?

Elise Lee is Partnerships Manager at Global Institute For Tomorrow.